Off B’way B.O. Boom

After three and a half years, Off Broadway’s youngest commercial venue, the Variety Arts Theater, finally has a show that promises to justify the financial risk taken by opening the house. A group of investors, including Broadway’s Shubert Organization, spent $1.5 million converting the decrepit, porno-film theater into a spiffy, state-of-the-art legit venue with 499 seats. After a series of flops, the Variety Arts has, in “Death Defying Acts,” what looks like its best shot yet at the kind of hit that legitimizes a theater.

And the Variety Arts isn’t the only success story of the Off Broadway season. A few blocks north of its lower Third Avenue address, at the Union Square Theater – another 499-seater with a dubious commercial track record – “Vita and Virginia” ended a sold-out, 20-week run on March 19, returning to producers $600,000 – 150% of their $400,000 investment. Moreover, the Union Square’s next tenant, Neil Simon’s “London Suite,” expects to open April 9 with $1.2 million in advance sales – it’s already within shooting distance of that mark – and a recoupment schedule in the three to four month range. Not many Broadway shows can come close to those numbers, according to general manager Leonard Solo-way.

Any way you look at it, the commercial Off Broadway box office is exploding. It’s been apparent for some time that reasonable production costs in the $350,000 to $650,000 range for a show with strong reviews and word of mouth offer producers what has become almost unheard of in the Broadway district: timely recoupment and handsome profits.

Producer Fred Zollo and his partners found that out a couple of years ago, when they shunned Broadway and planted David Mamet’s “Oleanna” at the 349 seat Orpheum Theater on Second Avenue in the East Village, where the controversial play more than doubled its investment. That theater has had a subsequent hit with “Stomp,” which has been in profit for months and is running with no end in sight. Not far away, at the Astor Place Theater, Blue Man Group in “Tubes” has been selling out, or close, since November 1991, and it too, looks like a now and forever proposition. Other solid money makers included “Nun-sense” at the Douglas Fairbanks and “All in the Timing” at the John Houseman.

But things really heated up last spring, when Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” took over the Promenade Theater, a 399 seat venue on Broadway north of the Broadway district and, fueled by a Pulitzer Prize, glowing reviews and great word-of-mouth, recouped in weeks; it continues an extremely profitable run. Shortly after that opening, Simon announced that he would be taking his latest to an Off Broadway house.

“Vita and Virginia,” “Three Tall Women,” “Death Defying Acts” and “London Suite” boast a kind of star power that has been far from typical Off Broadway, as proven legit performers turn away from the expense and risk of Broadway productions and bring their audiences with them. “Vita and Virginia” was a literary work that featured Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins, and even with mixed reviews for the play (raves for the actresses), it became the surprise hit of the season.

A surprise, that is, to everyone but veteran producer Lewis Allen.

“I’m an optimist,” Allen says, “and I thought it would do well, I thought it should do well.” Allen and co-producer Robert Fox are planning a national tour of “Vita and Virginia” to begin next year and to run a minimum of 20 weeks.

“Death Defying Acts,” a bill of one-acts by Mamet, Elaine May and Woody Allen, was capitalized at $650,000, according to general manager Richard Frankel. When the show opened to a rave from Vincent Canby in the New York Times, the box office went through the roof, selling nearly $130,000 worth of tickets the day after opening – shattering an Off Broadway record apparently set last year (the records aren’t precise) by “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants” at the Second Stage Theater.

Two weeks later, “Death Defying Acts” has an advance of about $820,000, Frankel reports, and tickets are currently on sale through July. Frankel wouldn’t say when producers Julian Schlossberg (also a “Vita” producer) and Jean Doumanian expect to recoup, but the prospects shouldn’t be too different from the similarly scaled “London Suite.”

“As someone who’s struggled Off Broadway for a long time, this is great,” says Frankel. “But we’re dealing with stars. Hey, big suprise: Stars really do sell tickets.”

With Off Broadway’s biggest theaters locked up for the near future, some producers wonder if less commercial artists aren’t being squeezed out. But Lewis Allen who plans a return to Broadway next season as a co-producer of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” , point out that only the biggest Off Broadway venues can support these shows. There are only a handful of 300-to-500 seat houses, he said. “There are still all those other theaters to fill.”

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